The Meaning of Religious Service

David E. Koltenbaugh
Thomasville, Georgia

Religion is greatly misunderstood an d abused by many, for they think it is a tool to be employed in obtaining their own selfish ends. They use religion as a lever to pry God into complying w it h the will of man. They pray and "go to church" and thus expect God to reward them with a flourishing trade, a steady wage or a bounteous crop. They practice benevolence to others and think God is thus obligated to banish their petty cares, heal their ills and warm their bellies. They use the church as they use their labor union; they use the preacher as they do their congressman: they enter the courts of heaven and offer fawning praise to, bargain for better living conditions, to lobby in their own selfish, local interest.

Ah, despicable creatures, who "serve not our Lord Christ, but their own belly"! They displease God, for they prostitute religion to their own paltry pleasure; they dishonor Him, for they waste their talents in subservience to to their own wills; they blaspheme God, for they try to bribe Him to serve them ! Ignorant they are! for they think prosperity is Divine reward for the adoration they have not yet learned to offer. Blind they are! for they see not the void in their own souls. Ali, pitiable! for they think themselves strong and do not forsee their own failure. When comes the time of loss, agony and trial, they will suffer the more intensely, for they never learned to suffer gladly; they will lose all most painfully, for they never learned to give it cheerfully. Then they will know the worst anguish on earth the terrible, tormenting doubts of a sinking faith - for they never really know God as He is.

Religion is a means to an end, but that end is not self - it is service, the service of God. But that service is an emptying, selfless, sacrificing work of love, employed as a means to adoring the Sovereign above, and not toward procuring one's own prosperity and comfort. Multitudes follow the Master in every age, seeking only the loaves and fishes; few follow Him to feast on the Words of Life. Numbers pray for the might and understanding to effect their own pleasures: the true saint of God asks for strength, but only that he may overcome his temptations, endure his burdens and carry the load for the week - and all that he may serve God the more; he requests wisdom, but only that he may choose better the things that magnify God; he prays that he may be filled with love and faith and hope, but only that he may point other men to the God of love; he desires peace, so that he may freely minister in the gospel of peace. Such a man knows that persecution often results from doing good and prays to endure it when it comes: he prays not merely for prosperity as the reward of good. He has learned to sing when suffering, to pray in pain, to love God when it entails loss of all he possesses. He thus has power to face the arena of conflict and cheerfully accept the bitter scorn of the galleries, for he seeks not immediate, temporal rewards - he seeks ultimate, eternal grace.

Here are two attitudes toward religion. The former is selfish - it tries to get all out of it that it can, but the other is completely selfless - it tries to put all into it that it can. The major difference between them appears not so much on the surface, for both perform the external forms of religious service: each attends worship services with equal regularity and punctuality, each singing with equal gusto and offering prayers of equal length. The distinction may appear to some to be therefore trivial, but it is as wide as the gulf between the rich man and Lazarus.

To many a man, the universe revolves about himself; to only a few it rotates around the Throne of God. The mass of irreligious" people are looking only for the "showers of blessings" that wet their own hides, and look not for Him who "makes his rain fall on both the just and the unjust." They look downward, as though God were to he found in gold dust at their feet. They only stoop to grasp, never to adore. They desire a crown, but will not carry the cross; they want to get, but not to give. Selfish, the ears of their ego itch, and they pant after the popular priests who will lead them to the temples of pride. Unstable, they are "tossed by every wind of doctrine" and are ripe for apostasy.

Selfish ones! do you not know that to truly serve is to suffer? You must learn the joy of living by perpetually dying: you can have the deepest, most abiding pleasure only through the pain of giving all. Do the birthpangs cause the mother to love her baby less ? She loves her babe - she disregards the pain. The agony of effort will have its reward in the ultimate harvest reaped, and "we shall reap if we faint not." (Gal. 6:9) It is, to say the least, immature to serve God with only the present view in view, and the effort expended in such service will necessarily be as limited in quality as the selfish perspective of life which motivates it. Yet look at the numbers who serve God for nothing more than beans and bread, television sets, and safety from the hydrogen bomb! What kind of blasphemy is it that promises God prayers and services in return for temporal favors? God is no greedy despot who can be thus intimidated!

The New Testament teaches that the religious service acceptable to the Almighty is that which knows no, reservation, which seeks no compromise, which asks no quarter.

"If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever would save his life shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it." (Matt. 16:24-25)

"Faithful is the saying: For if we died with him, we shall also live with him: if we endure, we shall also reign with him: if we shall deny him, he also will deny us: if we are faithless, he abideth faithful; for he cannot denv himself." (2 Tim. 2:11-13) "Forasmuch then as Christ suffered in the flesh, arm ye yourselves also with the same mind; for he that hath suf f ered in the flesh hath ceased from sin; that ye no longer should live the rest of your time in the flesh to the lusts of men, but to the will of God." (I Pet. 4:1-2)

Religion is to be an avenue of faith through which the soul would ascend to the God it loves. To climb that heavenward way, one must leave earth behind, for one cannot hug his carnal idols and repose in the bosom of the Father in heaven. He must destroy the terraphim of selfishness and pride and give himself in deepest faith and most obedient fidelltv to the adoration of God, denying self and all else earthly.

When that is done, religion takes on its true meaning. It ceases being a means to promoting the glory of men, of publicizing the grandeurs of congregations, of advertising the pride of individuals. It no longer lends itself to centralization and carnalization, to sensationalism and sectarianism. When Christians sacrifice and serve in the truest sense of the word, religion becomes individual, not organizational - personal, not promotional. It no longer is used by misunderstanding persons as a means of pointing with pride to their accomplishments and demanding of God consequent blessings. True religion says not by its works, "Look what we have done, see how mighty we are"; it says, "Look what God has done, see how unworthy we are!" The church has too many rich men who want to build greater barns of pride; the church has too few Nvidows who are willing to give their last two mites. If persecution is a temptation to disloyalty and fear, prosperity is a temptation to pride and greed. The richness, magnitude and bombast with which we do things of a religious nature do not impress God. Babel could never have been built so, high that Jehovah would have to look upward to its pinnacle! He looks rather downward with love into the depths of the humble heart which serves Him without desire for material gain, without hope of temporal pleasures, with no pride in its own accomplishments. The church today with its donors of millions of dollars is doing infinitely less than the church of the first century with its donors of loyal blood! Then, she sought nothing of earth's vain treasures, for she had no substance to which to add wealth, but she knew the meaning of true religious service - sacrifice, toll, praying, bleeding and dying. She recognized the individual and personal nature of the religion of our Lord.

Yes, religion means sacrifice: personal sacrifice - "to visit the fatherless and widows," and it means purity: individual purity - "to keep oneself unspotted from the world." (Jas. 1 :27) It is not impossibly complex, but it is vast in its dimensions, for unlimited are its powers for good. Genuine faith can move the mountains, a~, it were, that are unmovable to all the gigantic machinery of the carnal minded. Power for the work of today lies not in the envisioned cathedrals and lofty organizations of men - it lies dormant in the untapped resources of the individual heart as motivated by the power potential in the Word of the Lord.

Truth Magazine II:5, pp. 12-13, 23
February 1958